BIG READ: The sky is the limit as astronomy takes off again

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The Tadpoles of IC 410
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This month the night sky has been offering up an embarrasment of riches – from the Supermoon just after the new year, to the unusual Blue Moon which will fill the sky on January 31.

Mars, Pluto, Saturn and Mercury have all been visible while two great lunar craters were expected to come into view on Friday.

Stargazing at the Historic Dockyard in 2018

Stargazing at the Historic Dockyard in 2018

Thanks to the likes of science poster-boy Professor Brian Cox and Westbourne’s own astronaut Tim Peake, astronomy has become enormously popular.

What’s so appealing is that you don’t need a degree in physics to get involved.

With just a basic telescope you can contemplate the true vastness, and beauty, of the universe through stargazing.

You can explore the final frontier from the comfort of your back garden or your bedroom window.

In an age of ever-growing interconnectedness as social media and technology take over, engaging in a hobby where you can take a little bit of ‘me’ time has become a novelty – an escape from the hustle and bustle of reality.

With astronomy you have to stop what you’re doing and watch the sky open up.

Elizabeth Swann is a 24-year-old outreach PhD student representative from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) at the University of Portsmouth.

Her love of astronomy began during her time at university, which inspired her to become a full-time astronomer.

‘My love of astronomy came from my love of maths, originally’ says Elizabeth. ‘I wanted to apply my love of maths to something, and it was while I was doing physics at university that I realised how it could be applied to astronomy.

‘There is a feeling that you are contributing to human knowledge through astronomy, which I find quite amazing.’

According to Elizabeth, getting into astronomy is easy – due in large part to the fact that you don’t need anywhere near as much equipment as people imagine

‘To think that all of this came from my mum just giving me a telescope with a CD instructing me on how to use it is astounding’ she says.

‘And that seriously is all you need to get into astronomy.

‘It is definitely very accessible, much more so than other hobbies that people can get into.

‘There is something out there among the stars to interest just about anyone, from the Big Bang to supernovas and smaller things.

‘If you would rather just keep an eye out for the nearby planets, then you can find a lot of enjoyment from that too.'

It’s never been easier to know what to look for.

Log onto sites such as Jodrell Bank Centre or Space.com to find out what you can expect to see in the sky over the next month.

Or download free apps such as Skyview or Nightsky.

‘I think the fact that it is so accessible is part of the reason why I am so passionate about it, since anyone can get into it’, says Elizabeth.

Graham Bryant, chairman of Hampshire Astronomical Group, says that this accessibility is a big reason why astronomy is suddenly taking off once again.

‘There is so much more equipment available these days, which makes it much easier to get into’ says Graham.

‘Today you can buy a telescope fairly cheap and that really is all you need; there are also a lot more societies around where you can delve deeper into it all.

'In fact, in some instances you don’t even need a telescope anymore.

‘Instead, you can buy time online in big observatories around the world, which means you can look down a telescope in Hawaii without leaving your living room.’

This love of astronomy will come together at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, as the annual stargazing evening takes place on Tuesday night.

The event, which is being held in collaboration with Action Stations, HMS Warrior and ICG, will offer a range of astronomy-themed hands-on activities, with experts chatting to the public about their research, and giving short talks.

Elsewhere, there will be a chance to do some stargazing and look through telescopes with local amateur astronomers, learn how sailors navigated by the stars, find out about space missions and more.

Elizabeth says: ‘The event has been going on for so many years now, which is really encouraging.

‘Last year we had more than 700 people, and we are hoping for even more this year. I’m quite excited about the opportunity to stargaze from the deck of HMS Warrior – that’s not something many people can say they’ve done so it's a pretty unique experience. We also have the Hampshire Astronomical Group coming along and their knowledge of astronomy is so vast I think people will learn an awful lot from them.

‘I helped out last year, but am now part of the organisation of the event and it feels great to be part of something like this.’

Graham adds: ‘I’m really looking forward to the event.

‘As well as the observations we are doing from HMS Warrior, we will also be talking to people more about astronomy in general; how to get started with it and what to look out for.

‘On the night there will be a couple of things people can see such as Orion’s Nebula, so everyone that comes along will be able to get a taste of what stargazing is truly like.

‘It is something that you can now do anywhere, anytime, and hopefully we can really capture people’s imaginations with it.’

The stargazing event at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard will begin at 6pm on Tuesday night.

To purchase tickets go to historicdockyard.co.uk/events